Opinion 20th March 2020

Covid-19 poses risk to anti-doping efforts

Aside from the obvious health risks Covid-19, or the Coronavirus, poses a huge risk to anti-doping and as such, to the integrity of the few sporting events that remain on the calendar, such as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Anti-doping organisations (ADOs) who publicise that they are scaling back anti-doping activities also pose a risk to sporting integrity, as such an announcement could embolden athletes who are considering cheating. 

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has already announced that it will monitor the impact of Covid-19 on the ‘integrity of anti-doping testing worldwide’. It is therefore likely to have noticed that:

• the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK) is operating a ‘significantly reduced’ testing programme;
• UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) announced a ‘significant reduction’ in its testing programme;
• Germany’s anti-doping agency (NADA) has suspended all testing;
• Austria’s anti-doping agency (NADA Austria) has shut down all but critical testing;
• the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is only operating ‘mission critical’ doping controls;
• Anti-Doping Denmark (ADD) has reduced testing.
• Sport Ireland has announced that it will continue ‘priority testing’.

Other ADOs, such as the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), are operating as normal. The lack of a level playing field – in terms of testing athletes – could create a headache for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has yet to announce any delay to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.  

Under Article 5.2.3 of the World Anti-Doping Code, the IOC has responsibility for out of competition and in competition testing in relation to the Olympics. The Tokyo 2020 Anti-Doping Rules (PDF below) specify that from 13 May, the IOC and its International Testing Agency (ITA) partner will assume all responsibility for all testing.

On 13 May, the IOC and ITA will take over testing of elite athletes preparing for the Olympics not knowing if they have been subject to any doping tests at all in the previous two months. Many athletes choose Kenya in which to train ahead of the Olympics because of its high altitude training centres. In particular, the Eldoret/Kapsabet region, at over 2,000 metres above sea level. 

Over a sustained period, training at such altitudes is thought to benefit athletes as lower oxygen levels lead the body to increase red blood cell and haemoglobin production. This aids the blood in carrying oxygen to muscles, a benefit that remains for 10-14 days when the athlete returns to lower altitude. The region has also failed to tackle the supply of erythropoietin (EPO) to athletes, after the issue was first identified in 2012. As Kenya has scaled back testing of athletes, Olympians who train there are likely to face suspicion and scrutiny.

In a teleconference, the IOC told international federations and athletes that ‘more frequent anti-doping tests’ would be carried out to prevent athletes from taking advantage of the reduction in testing, reported Xinhua. However, athletes appear to be concerned. “If the Olympics go ahead, then it appears that anti-doping can’t have been as stringent as it needs to be”, Distance runner Jo Pavey told The Sun.

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has postponed the European Championships for 12 months. As did the IOC’s Communique, its Statement highlighted the health of all involved as the number one priority. The two tournaments are six weeks apart, so the IOC is arguably correct in its reasoning that it is too early to decide whether to postpone Tokyo 2020. 

However due to Covid-19 and because of the gaps in the testing system highlighted above, it is unlikely to be the joyous celebration of sport that the IOC and its sponsors hope for. If it does go ahead, it is likely to be an Olympics of concern and suspicion, where every cough is winced at, and every incredible performance doubted. In such circumstances, postponement might be best for all involved.

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